Donegal: The Forgotten County

Almost sixty per cent of voters in Donegal returned an unambiguous ‘No’ in the November 2012 referendum on children. The previous June, the county rejected the European fiscal treaty and previously it said No to both Lisbon treaties in 2008 and 2009. As the county was being hit hard by emigration following the economic collapse, unemployment continued to rise and household incomes dropped sharply. There were rumblings that a large percentage of the county’s population would refuse to pay the Household Charge. What was the reason for this disconnect? There was a pervasive feeling among Donegal people that they live in the ‘forgotten county’ and that its peripheral location has defined its lack of economic development. In 2002, County Donegal’s unemployment rate was fifteen per cent, compared with nine per cent at the national level. Even during the peak of the so-called Celtic Tiger boom, Donegal continued to have a much higher unemployment rate compared to the national average. In Ballyshannon, the world-renowned Rogans angling business and then Donegal Parian China closed their doors. The ESB reduced its workforce from a peak of 200 to about forty staff. Donegal lost more jobs during the boom years than were created within the county. The county has had the highest deprivation rates in the country since 1991 and the highest rate of unemployment since 2002. By 2010, the situation had not improved and south Donegal had the fastest-growing unemployment rate of any area in the Border counties. According to the 2011 census, youth unemployment in the county was at forty-nine per cent. The rate of overall unemployment at 26.2% compared with nineteen per cent for the State. A report published by the Area Development Management/Combat Poverty Agency (ADM/CPA) revealed that Donegal was the ‘most deprived Border county’ in terms of social deprivation.4 In 2012, it was revealed that Donegal did not even exist on the maps of the Irish Government’s crisis response headquarters. Senator Joe McHugh made the claim that the omission by National Emergency Co-ordinating Centre was ‘a continuation of the inglorious attitude towards the forgotten county’.

Yet Donegal has always existed on the periphery. According to tradition, Donegal was established as a geographical entity when Conall Gulban carved out the kingdom of Tír Conaill (from the Drowes to the Swilly) in the fifth century. His brother Eógan ruled Inishowen and later by extension Tyrone (Tír Eóghan). Another brother, Cairbre (after whom Duncarbry is named) ruled the area from the Drowes to the Owenmore River at Ballysadare. From the 51 late sixth century onwards, the descendants of Cairbre and Conall sought to expand their territories. The stage was set for the area around south Donegal and north Leitrim to become a highly contested area. For over a thousand years, this area would remain a Borderland with the frontline periodically shifting north and south. Cenél Conaill was facing a threat from its northern neighbours also. Cenél nEóghain defeated them at the battle of Clóiteach (Clady on the River Finn) and forced them to move south of the Barnesmore Gap. The giant cashel Grianán of Aileach may have been built around this time to celebrate this victory. This cashel, with walls four metres thick, was built in the ninth century. Its construction coincided with the expansion of the Cenél nEóghain dynasty. It was around this time that these rulers of ‘the North’ began to be described as the kings of Aileach. However, Cenél Conaill, their ‘unloved cousins’ to the south continued to act as a bulwark against their hegemony.

In 807 AD, the Norse men made their presence felt with an attack on Inis Muiredaig in Donegal Bay. By the 830s, large Viking fleets began to arrive in Donegal Bay and sail up the Erne. The Cenél Conaill repelled a Viking incursion in a battle at Es Ruaid (Ballyshannon) in 837. The Vikings attacked Devenish Island monastery on Lough Erne that same year. The attacks continued into the next century. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Vikings appear to have established temporary settlements in the area at Dún na nGall (Donegal town) and Cáel Uisce (Belleek). Donegal (Dún na nGall: meaning ‘fort of the foreigners’ may have been named after these Nordic invaders. In the tenth century, the Ó Canannáin dynasty (Cannon) ruled their area between the Ballintra River and the Barnesmore Gap. Mag nÉne (Magh Éne), the plain between the Drowes and the Erne, was home to the Muintir Maíl Doraid (Dorrian). Their rulers were inaugurated at the famous flagstone Lecc Uí Maíl Doraid on the southern banks of the Erne. The area around Ballyshannon (Es Ruaid) was reserved for the dynasty that held the kingship of Cenél Conaill. Ruaidhrí Ó Canannáin ruled Tír Conaill from 941 to 950. He became ‘the most powerful Irish king’ of his time. Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Muintir Chanannáin and Muintir Maíl Doraid families battled for control of Tír Chonaill. From 1085 to 1181 the Uí Channannáin ruled Tír Chonaill with the result that Tír Áeda (south Donegal) was renamed Trí Saorthuatha Mhuinntire Chanannáin (‘the three free territories of the Cannon clan’). The Uí Maíl Doraid, expanded their territory into northern Connacht. By the end of the thirteenth century, the hegemony enjoyed by the south Donegal families was ending and 52 the Ó Domhnaill (O’Donnell) clan stepped onto the stage, where they would remain for the next few centuries. The O’Donnell lords, who claimed the Cenél Conaill as ancestors, extended the traditional boundaries of Donegal. These areas remained under their control until 1603. Their rule was consolidated by a strong dynasty despite some succession disputes. Their success in resisting Norman invasion was in part due to their strong military organisation and use of mercenary fighters who had come from Scotland (gallóglaigh). This was subsidised by taxing subordinate lords and chiefs. The Norman threat to O’Donnell power arrived in the form of Maurice Fitzgerald, described by Henry III as being ‘harsh in executing the King’s mandates’. He built Sligo Castle in 1245 after Connacht was brought under Norman rule and he planned to expand his rule northwards into Donegal. This resulted in the battle of Creadran Cille, north of Sligo in 1257 and defeat for the Normans. The conflict with Fitzgerald extended the southern Border of Tír Conaill as far as the Drowes. At the time, the area (Magh Éne) was under the control of the chieftain O’Flanagan of Tuatha Ratha (West Fermanagh).

During the mid-14th century internal rivalries within the O‘Donnell clan undermined the stability of Tír Conaill. A bitter territorial dispute emerged between the O’Donnells and the O’Connors of north Connacht that continued to dominate the political landscape of south Donegal throughout the 15th century. Brian O‘Connor began to build a castle at Bundrowes in 1420 to prevent the O‘Donnells from extending the southern boundary of Tír Conaill. This resulted in a continuous struggle by both families to establish control over south Donegal. After Henry VIII was declared King of Ireland in 1541, English plans became sharply focused on the strategic town of Ballyshannon. Captain Thomas Lee, an English soldier of fortune proposed setting up a garrison there suggesting that ‘once settled in that place, (we) will procure great quietness in (the) province of Connacht, and stop the only passage which they (the O’Donnells) have to go to and fro to assist any traitor that may rebel there’.

In July 1597, Sir Conyers Clifford, the governor of Connacht, attempted to capture O’Donnell’s Castle at Ballyshannon with a large army. Even though there was a small garrison stationed there, they managed to hold out until O’Donnell arrived with reinforcements. The English soldiers were routed and forced to retreat southwards towards Sligo. O’Donnell’s forces intercepted the troops in the boggy terrain of Magheracar, just south of the present 53 day town of Bundoran. The result was carnage and slaughter with an estimated six hundred English casualties. The name Magheracar translates as the ‘Plain of the Slaughter’. The O’Neills and O’Donnells joined forces to oppose the English invasion during the Nine Years War. Despite some early successes, the war ended in defeat for the Irish chieftains. On 14 September 1607, Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell, along with members of their families and retinue boarded a ship at Rathmullan and set sail for Spain, never to return. With the removal of the last rebel chieftains of Ireland, the English began to implement their next colonial project, the Plantation of Ulster. The architect of the Plantation of Ulster, Sir Arthur Chichester, once described Donegal people as being ‘inclined to blood and trouble’. In 1608, a commission was set up to gather information about the newly confiscated lands. In south Donegal, there was no government-sponsored attempt to remove the native Irish from the area and the region was sparsely planted with settlers making up just fifteen per cent of the population. The land in south Donegal (Barony of Tirhugh) was granted to Trinity College Dublin, former army officers (servitors) and the Church of Ireland.

Tír Conaill was historically divided into four ‘cantreds’. These ancient divisions were later used to form the baronies after Donegal became a county in 1585. The barony of Tirhugh (from the Drowes to the Eske and Bearnas Mór) was more or less based on the ancient territory of Tír Áeda. In 1603, James I granted Ballyshannon Castle to Henry Folliott along with some of the neighbouring lands. In 1610, Folliott agreed to maintain the castles at Ballyshannon and Bundrowes in a ‘defensible state’ in the event of a native uprising in the area. The Folliotts also leased the south Donegal townlands of Bundrowes, Drumacrin, Ardfarna and Rathmore from Trinity College Dublin. Henry Folliott, who had held the lands from the time of the Plantation (as a reward for distinguishing himself at the battle of Kinsale), died in 1622. He passed the lands onto his son Thomas Folliott. When Thomas Folliott died in 1696, the estate was passed onto his son Henry. Henry Folliott died in 1716 without an heir. In 1718, much of the estate was sold to his legal advisor William Speaker Connolly. After William Connolly died in 1729, he left his estate to his nephew William (M.P. for Ballyshannon) who died in 1754. Thomas Connolly then inherited the estates. When he died without a genetic heir, he passed the land to a Colonel Pakenham, who took the name Connolly. His son, Thomas Connolly, inherited the estate. This Thomas Connolly appears as the main property owner in Magh Éne in Griffith‘s evaluation in the middle of the 19th century. Like many areas in the west of Ireland, the Great Famine ravaged Donegal. In 1845, the blight was reported in the Donegal town area. By 1846, Bundoran had lost some of its crop to the disease. Dr Sheil recorded that at the time, there was ‘great distress’ among the poorest members of society. In 1846, the local priest Fr. Francis Kelaghan appealed to the Lieutenant General to help some of the underprivileged people of Bundoran, claiming that their food stocks were rapidly running out and they faced starvation. In 1847, reports of fever and dysentery outbreaks in south Donegal began to appear. Despite the government‘s initial indifference, relief committees were set up to deal with the humanitarian disaster. Local landlords Colonel Connolly and Dr. Sheil were among the most generous contributors to the local Relief Committee.

While Donegal had extensive maritime assets, its fisheries remained underdeveloped due to high levels of emigration after the Famine.10 In the early 1880s large-scale evictions forced many people from Donegal to emigrate during the Land War.11 By the time the Congested Districts Board was established, Donegal farms had the lowest valuation in Ulster. Poor infrastructure hampered access to markets. The development of the railway lagged behind the rest of the country. Periodic calamities compounded the problem and contributed to general levels of impoverishment. The population had a low level of literacy and limited employment opportunities. There was an over-dependence on hiring and child labour as a source of income.

By 1891, Ballyshannon, then the largest town in Donegal, had lost its booming maritime trade in iron and wine. Gone too was its extensive salt industry. At one time it thrived as a banking and industrial centre. It had strong brewing and distilling industries. Other industries thrived such as tobacco and snuff manufacture, weaving and dyeing.13 Partition was disastrous for Donegal. Its impact on the county is still being felt. Not only was it geographically isolated from the new Irish Free State but also it was cut off from its natural hinterlands in the new Northern Ireland state. Both governments neglected to adopt a strategic approach in developing the local area and that resulted in economic stagnation. Then the railway network was dismantled, further diminishing cross-Border trade. The issue of chronic unemployment continued in south Donegal and was raised by Deputy Brennan in Dáil Éireann in November 1955.